In case you haven't heard, Justin Upton is back on the trading block, and one popular bit of speculation going around baseball last week concerned a potential Justin Upton-for-Elvis Andrus trade. According to CBS Sports' Jon Heyman, the Rangers have said they wouldn't give up Andrus for Upton, but the trade makes too much sense for the idea to be snuffed out that easily.
Think about it: We know for a fact that Upton is available. We also know that the Diamondbacks are not looking to rebuild. They won their division in 2011 and, by third-order wins, were neck-and-neck with the Giants and Dodgers in 2012. That means that what they're looking for in making Upton available is a win-now trade for an established major leaguer who can slot into the lineup or rotation. Kevin Towers said on Thursday that he doesn't envision landing a top starter "even in an Upton deal." That leaves third base or shortstop as the positions most in need of an upgrade. The Rangers have rookie Jurickson Profar, one of the top prospects in all of baseball, ready to take over for Andrus at shortstop and need an outfielder and middle-of-the-order hitter to replace free-agent Josh Hamilton. How does this deal not happen?
Looking at it from the Rangers' perspective, Profar did crack the majors in September, but made only 17 plate appearances and will be just 20 years old in the coming season. They're in win-now mode as well, having made the playoffs in each of the last three seasons, and might not feel ready to hand the shortstop job to Profar without retaining Andrus as a safety net. If they trade Andrus and Profar struggles, the lack of an alternate at the position who could allow them to ship Profar back to the minors could cost them a chance to get back to the playoffs as well as potentially hinder Profar's development.
Still, the Rangers have quite a logjam on the left side of the infield. With Ian Kinsler locked in at second base through 2017, there's no way to shoehorn both Andrus and Profar into the lineup at the same time. Texas has a similar problem at third base, where 24-year-old prospect Mike Olt cracked the majors in August but doesn't quite appear ready to replace Adrian Beltre, who is coming off an MVP-quality campaign and is signed through 2015.
The Rangers didn't say they wouldn't trade Olt, but the Diamondbacks might have the same concern about trading Upton for Olt that the Rangers have about trading Andrus and being "stuck" with Profar. Olt has just 40 major league plate appearances to his name, didn't hit a lick in that small sample, and has never played at Triple-A. As bright as his future might be, there's no guarantee that Olt would out-hit Chris Johnson in 2013. The Rangers can work Olt into their first-base picture in 2013 or shuffle him back to Triple-A for further development, but short of moving Kinsler or Profar to the outfield, where neither has played as a professional, they're going to have part ways with one of their shortstops in the next year or two.
So how would an Upton-Andrus trade look from the Diamondbacks' perspective? To start, it would reduce the team's financial commitments. Andrus is signed through 2014 but owed just $11.275 million for the remaining two seasons on his contract compared to the $38.5 million Upton is owed over the next three, yet another reason the Rangers might be hesitant to pull the trigger. Andrus, who is 24, is also one day shy of a year younger than Upton, so he would make the Diamondbacks even younger, though that youth actually comes with one fewer team-controlled year in this case. On the field, Andrus is maturing into a perennial four-win player per Baseball-References Wins Above Replacement (bWAR), improving his batting average and inside-the-park power with maturity and becoming a reliably excellent fielder. It would thus be reasonable to expect him to be a three-to-four win upgrade on the Diamondbacks' projected shortstop platoon of Cliff Pennington and Willie Bloomquist.
Upton was worth nearly six wins above replacement in 2011, but fell back to just over two wins this past season. Over the past four years, he has been worth an average of 3.2 bWAR, but clearly has the potential to break out as a star in any given season, as well as the proven ability to play well below the level of his talent. The trick to evaluating a potential Upton trade is evaluating Upton's potential. There are two ways to approach this: one can try to measure Upton's replacement against Upton's projected future performance, or one can simply measure it against the performance he's replacing.
Replacing Upton's 2.1 bWAR in right field last year shouldn't be hard, particularly given the depth of the field of free agent outfielders this offseason. Shane Victorino, for example, is well down on the list but was worth 2.4 bWAR in a down year at the age of 31 in 2012. Signing Victorino or his like would make the improvement at shortstop with the addition of Andrus pure upgrade and give the trade the potential to improve the team by as many as four wins. The catch is that Upton has the potential to provide that four-win upgrade himself, and the Diamondbacks could upgrade at shortstop without trading Upton by signing Marco Scutaro or even taking a flier on a reunion with Stephen Drew.
Andrus is younger, cheaper, and more consistent than Upton and plays a position that's more difficult to fill with a productive player. As such, he's the perfect target for an Upton trade, but the Rangers would have to be convinced that Upton would fulfill his potential in their hitter-friendly ballpark despite his down year in 2012, or the Diamondbacks might have to sweeten the pot with additional players. It's easy to see why the Rangers might be unconvinced and thus reluctant to make the swap. That said, if neither Upton nor Andrus is traded in the next 12 months, this deal could be floated again next offseason, at which point, if Profar and Upton both have strong 2013 campaigns, the Rangers might be more amenable to it.